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Revisiting the 1980s: 5 Iconic Movies About Students

Robin Williams reads a book in Dead Poets Society

The 1980s was a golden era for movies, producing films that went on to become all-time classics. Think of milestones of the sci-fi genre like Alien, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator, or Spielberg gems like E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Color Purple. Some of the best movies of all time were made in the 80s, from Kubrick’s The Shining and Lynch’s Blue Velvet to Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, George Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back and many more releases that made history.

But the 1980s also gave us some fantastic movies that  captured the essence of youth, friendship, and the struggles of growing up. Think of Risky Business (1983), Sixteen Candles (1984), The Goonies (1985), Say Anything... (1989), and Heathers (1989): each in its own way, all of these movies gave us unforgettable portrayals of students and continue to resonate with audiences to this day. 

Let’s revisit the decade with a list of 5 iconic movies about students from the 1980s, belonging to different genres and each important for its impact on audiences and pop culture, what it means to the industry, the lessons it imparts, and more! If you’re looking to enhance your academic journey, consider checking out research proposal writing services by EssayPro to ensure your work stands out just as much as these films. Let’s now get into the list! You’ll find all films below, in alphabetical order. Happy watching!

1. Back to the Future (1985)

Robert Zemeckis

Doc Brown and Marty McFly in Back to the Future, one of 5 Iconic 1980s Movies About Students
5 1980s Movies About Students: Back to the Future (Universal Pictures)

Why was Back to the Future so revolutionary for the sci-fi genre upon release? Because it completely subverted audiences’ expectations of what a sci-fi film should look like. The movie opens with a high schooler named Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) sneaking into a friend’s house, early in the morning, to play guitar on the latter’s enormous amp, and inadvertently blowing it up by overcharging it before realizing he’s late for school. Back to the Future’s opening scene works as the perfect introduction to its protagonist – a teenager who likes to rock and whose only worries are school, girls, and getting his parents to let him use the car for his date that night.

But Marty’s best friend just-so-happens to be an eccentric scientist named “Doc” Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), whose invention – a time machine in a DeLorean – ends up sending Marty  back in time to 1955.  From then on, the film becomes something else entirely, focusing on Marty’s attempts to get “back to the future” while trying not to tamper with the past – aided by a younger, hilariously clueless, but admiringly resourceful Doc. 

One of the film’s most captivating aspects is how it portrays the generational differences and similarities through Marty’s interactions with his teenage parents when he’s in the past. It explores themes of identity, destiny (or, to use Marty’s dad’s words, “density”), and the impact of our actions on the future. The movie’s humor, thrilling plot, and unforgettable characters make it a beloved classic that continues to inspire students and audiences of all ages.

2. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Peter Weir

Robin Williams sits on the floor in a classroom in Dead Poets Society, one of 5 Iconic 1980s Movies About Students
5 1980s Movies About Students: Dead Poets Society (Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Oh Captain, My Captain.” As inspirational movies go, Dead Poets Society is pretty much the best you can find. Set in 1959, the film centers on an English teacher named John Keating (Robin Williams) who, when the movie begins, has just arrived at a conservative all-male prep school in Vermont. Keating’s arrival doesn’t go unnoticed, as his unconventional, eccentric methods of teaching his students immediately get the attention of the staff. As John Keating has his pupils tear off entire chapters of books and reminds them of the importance of  “seizing the day,” the other teachers try to steer him back toward a more traditional approach.

But Keating keeps doing it all his way, inspiring his students through poetry and teaching them the power of self-expression and the importance of  exploring their true passions. The film beautifully captures the struggles of young students dealing with parental expectations, societal pressures, and their own desires. It emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, individuality, and the courage to stand up for one’s beliefs – all while championing the transformative power of education and the arts. On top of this, it’s also one of the best Robin Williams movies out there, with plenty of humor and heart to make for a memorable watch.

3. The Karate Kid

John G. Avildsen

The Karate Kid
5 1980s Movies About Students: The Karate Kid (Columbia Pictures)

This classic underdog story has inspired generations of viewers. The film follows Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), a teenager who moves to California with his mum (Randee Heller) and finds himself the target of bullies from a local karate dojo. But Daniel is in luck: the local handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), just so happens to be a Karate master. Slowly, Daniel’s relationship with the “sensei” evolves, and the latter ends up becoming a wise and skilled mentor. Through hours of endless training – in preparation for a competition against Daniel’s nemesis Johnny (William Zabka) – our young apprentice learns that karate is as much about mental strength and discipline as it is about physical prowess.

The movie is not just about martial arts; it’s a powerful narrative about mentorship, resilience, and personal growth. Mr. Miyagi’s lessons go beyond karate, imparting wisdom about balance, patience, and the importance of inner peace. The Karate Kid remains a beloved film that encourages students to overcome adversity through hard work and perseverance. And if you’ve never seen it before, the good news is that there are many sequels – and let’s not forget about the recent, hugely popular spin-off series Cobra Kai!

4. The Outsiders (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola

The Outsiders: Film Review – Loud And Clear Reviews
Film Review: The Outsiders is turned by Francis Ford Coppola and his cast, against all odds, into an incredibly engrossing picture.

Based on the 1967 novel by S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders is a compelling drama about the lives of two rival teenage gangs in rural Oklahoma in the 1960s: the Greasers and the Socs. It all begins when Greaser members Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny (Ralph Macchio) have a fight with the Socs that results in the accidental death of a Soc named Bob. A Greaser named Dallas (Matt Dillon) helps Ponyboy and Johnny go into hiding, but things escalate and they must soon face up to the consequences of their actions – and grow up in the process.

The film, which mainly highlights themes of class conflict, loyalty, and the quest for identity, the movie also features a young ensemble cast, including future stars like Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, and Rob Lowe. For students, the film  is a relatable exploration of friendship, conflict, and the search for belonging. Read  our review of The Outsiders!

5. Stand by Me (1986)

Rob Reiner

5 1980s Movies About Students: Stand by Me Trailer (Rottentomatoes Classics)

Based on Stephen King’s novella “The Body,” Stand by Me is a touching coming-of-age film directed by Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride), following four young boys on a journey to find the body of a missing teenager. Set in the 1950s, the film captures the innocence, camaraderie, and adventures of childhood through our four immensely likable protagonists: Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell).

Stand by Me is a heartfelt exploration of friendship, loss, and the transition from childhood to adolescence. The boys’ journey is both physical and emotional as they confront their fears, insecurities, and the harsh realities of growing up. The film’s nostalgic tone and memorable performances make it a timeless classic that resonates with students and adults alike, and a film that you simply won’t be able to watch with a smile on your face throughout.

The 1980s produced an array of films that continue to captivate audiences, especially students. These five movies – Back to the Future, Dead Poets Society, The Karate Kid, The Outsiders, and Stand by Me – offer timeless stories and valuable life lessons. Enjoy!

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